Despair devours hope with gluttonous abandon. A great darkness which drowns the light of the future. It grows in the horrors we witness every day. Wears upon the mind like waves beating at a cliff. In time hope is swallowed completely, ground up and dragged away from us. Leaving us adrift in meaningless sorrow and emptiness.
But hope is stronger than we believe. A single spark can rekindle a long-dead flame. Spreading from pony to pony through actions and words. Even in the darkest hearts and the loneliest times the right spark can light the world anew. Sometimes it takes grand actions to make others believe again. Sometimes all you need to do is show others there’s something worth believing in.
Splosh. Splosh. Splosh.
The sewer tunnels echoed with the splash of hooves in water. Rain from above had flooded the tunnels with water deep enough to reach Requiem’s flank. At first she had tried to slog through it. But, with no way of knowing how much deeper it might get, I wasn’t comfortable with that. Instead she now rested indignantly upon my back, still dripping rain water on my already wet coat.
“Ugh. How does rain water get this dirty this fast?” Arsenal’s voice cut through the echo of the tunnel in irritation. It wasn’t a completely unreasonable question, either. The rain water was mixed with dirt and debris from the city above. “Two hundred years! How can a city still have this much trash after two hundred years!?” An empty candy bar wrapper floated by on the surface of the water as though to punctuate her point.
I had no answer. I doubt she wanted one, either. Ever since we entered the sewers she’d been especially miserable. The initial burst of happiness and resolution from her freedom had worn away. “How much further are we going? My hooves are starting to ache!” Apparently leaving her with nothing better to do than complain.
“We’ll get there when we get there.” The weight of my actions at the prison still sat heavily upon me. Bogging down my mind and draining my desire to do anything other than press onwards. I pinned everything on the hope that the raider leader had been honest. If I could find a piece of my past here, maybe then it would be worth what happened there? Some part of me believed that, others complained that that was horrific. Murder to find a piece of myself? The idea made my eyes burn with suppressed tears. Instead I focused as best I could on the tunnels before me.
“Are you sure we’re not lost? These tunnels look awfully familiar.” Arsenal cast her gaze around the surrounding tunnels, “I’d swear we’ve passed this junction at least three times!”
I suppressed a groan, raising my PipBuck slightly, “I DO have an automatic map! We’re not lost.” stamping my hoof into the water out of irritation. The small burst washed a chunk of floating wood towards Arsenal, who promptly hopped over it rather than let it touch her.
“Hmph. I’m still not convinced you even know how to use it properly.” Arsenal stared at the PipBuck longingly a few moments, “They’re a miracle of arcanotech engineering! Can you even appreciate how much effort went into building that one piece of hardware?”
I just rolled my eyes in frustration, “You’re free to leave if the way I treat my things bothers you that much.” Truthfully she was probably right. I used my PipBuck without thinking about it. I had no idea what secrets it might hold, only that it felt natural and effortless. Instincts as deeply ingrained as walking guided its use. Part of me protested I was being unfair to her. Much more of me was irritated, the emptiness of loss turning to frustration.
Arsenal opened her mouth to answer, only to be interrupted by angry hissing. Requiem noticed it first, shifting upon my back to stand on her hooves again. I was too engaged in my argument and frustration to spot the horror until it was almost upon us.
A shape resembling a pony burst from one of the side tunnels, surging through the water with unnatural strength. Torn, flaking flesh hung from an overly thin frame which made Arsenal look positively healthy by comparison. Its eyes were a milky white and its mouth filled with decayed, half-missing teeth. The rotting remains of a pony which somehow still managed to have strength enough to stand and move.
The creature leaped at Arsenal without hesitation. Requiem reacted before either of us could fully process what we were seeing. She jumped from my back, bucking the zombie pony in the face hard enough to send it sprawling off course. A resounding splash filled the halls as both Requiem and the zombie hit the water simultaneously.
“Uuuaaaah!” Arsenal screamed in surprise, leaping away from the rotting not-a-corpse. It took only a moment for her to grab the strange boxy weapon at her side. She swung it around towards the zombie. Bright pink light flooded the dim tunnels as she fired, half of the zombie’s head evaporating instantly. The corpse-like abomination splashed back down into the water, unmoving this time.
Hisses echoed in the distance as the creature fell. My E.F.S. instantly filled with red. The sounds of battle and argument had attracted the attention of many more hungry zombie ponies. Already I could see the shadow of another moving through the tunnels.
Arsenal was panting with surprise, “Zombie ponies!? What is WRONG with this world?” She trotted up towards me. Staying far away from the floating remains of the dead pony.
Soon many more would be upon us. Carefully I removed the massive minigun I had stolen from one of the raiders. It was huge, heavy and unwieldy. But compared to desks and missiles levitating it was easy.
Requiem scrambled back up to her feet. Rushing to my side despite being half-submerged. She leaped back up onto my back, shaking the water from her coat.
“Run now! Complain later!” It was the best advice I could give to Arsenal as four more of the shambling corpse-things leaped from a nearby tunnel. Hissing and growling in hunger and rage.
Arsenal scrambled past me abruptly. Without pause I swung the massive gun around. The deafening blare of gunfire filled the hallways as the bullets tore through soft flesh. Thick black ooze leaked from dozens of bullet wounds into the water beneath our hooves. Four more zombies joined the first in the release of death.
Without thinking I turned and began to run down the tunnels as fast as I could. Arsenal following just behind me. Requiem wrapped her forehooves tight around my neck, doing her best not to be bucked free.
“You’d better not get lost down here! I don’t want to get eaten today!” Arsenal was as optimistic and confident in me as ever, it seemed.
Splashing water surrounded us, echoing through tunnels as a dozen more red lights filled my vision. How many of these horrors were down here? Dozens? Hundreds? I had no idea, and I really did not want to find out today!
The distinctive sound of magical energy fire filled the air. The smell of burning flesh penetrated my awareness. Somewhere behind us three more zombies fell to the ground unmoving. I was silently thankful that Arsenal was a better shot than I was. At least she had a reason to feel superior!
Left. Right. Left. Straight. Left. Right. Right. Straight. We rushed down the tunnels, taking turns as fast as they came. More red dots seemed to appear everywhere we went. Had we managed to anger the entire sewers, all at once!? That thought did not fill me with joy.
A dozen more of the zombie ponies milled about in a large open room. They surrounded a pale green light. Light being emitted by another of their own number! Angry hissing filled the air as they spotted us. Instantly I pulled the trigger on my minigun. The scream of gunfire overpowered any other sound for a long moment. Six more of the zombies fell to the ground, dead. Four others bled black ooze from multiple bullet wounds.
The glowing zombie hissed angrily. It shifted stances slightly. A brilliant green flash radiated through the room. My PipBuck ticked angrily as the light washed over us. The light was warm, soothing, with a slight electric tingle to it. The aches from my healing wounds were swept away almost instantly. The slight ache in my horn which had lingered since the battle with the Raiders was gone. I felt good. Better than good!
The light faded and I could see the bleeding zombies’ wounds had healed over significantly. They were hissing in anger again, surging towards us. For a moment I wanted to bask in that warm light forever. The crack of Arsenal’s weapon brought my attention back. Two more zombie ponies disintegrated into pink ash, falling into the water to be swept away.
Requiem scrambled up my neck. Rushing up my horn and leaping from its tip to land on the head of one of the zombies. Instantly she kicked it, hard enough to send it reeling, before leaping towards another. Rebounding from zombie to zombie as they scrambled to catch her. But it wasn’t doing any good. Any injury she could give them was swiftly gone. The glowing zombie pressing them forwards.
The warm tingling sensation returned as the glowing zombie came closer to us. Part of me wanted to just stand there. To revel in that feeling. To let it take me away. The sight of Requiem leaping amongst their numbers. The ticking of my PipBuck. The crack of Arsenal’s weapon. They were all dull, meaningless, compared to the feeling of happiness and strength which that glow gave me.
I closed my eyes, gritting my teeth as I squeezed the trigger on my minigun again. The scream of the weapon cut at my perception. The warm feeling grew cold, falling away. When I opened my eyes again the glowing zombie had been reduced to nothing but scattered remains. Quickly being swept away by the current of rain water.
With the glowing one gone, the rest of the zombies fell with their characteristic ease. Requiem smashed two more with her hooves. Arsenal disintegrated three more. The minigun rapidly cut down the rest of them. I was almost out of ammo for that weapon. But for now it was enough.
The three of us rushed across the open room, deeper into the sewers. Too nervous and focused to talk.
“Eugh. Must we remain in these tunnels? They’re simply awful!” It hadn’t taken long for Arsenal to return to complaining about anything and everything which upset her. Part of me wanted to believe she was just as stressed as I was. Another part of me just wanted to shoot her and be done with it.
She wasn’t wrong, though. The tunnels had become less intact as we travelled. The walls cracked. Dark muddy brown water spilled from broken pipes. The water from the rain mixed with other fluids I didn’t wish to contemplate. Even now the tunnel we were in had a slight angle to it, like it had been bucked from its proper position by a great force.
Arsenal glared angrily at one of the muddy waterfalls, “Why couldn’t you be clean?” snorting angrily before trotting around it, her hooves splashing through the water. If anything she looked more miserable now than she had when I rescued her. Bits of dead zombie clung to her mane. I could see the marks on her wing where one had managed to get close enough to bite her.
At least the tunnels had been quiet for some time. It seemed the zombies didn’t come this far, which made me a little nervous. What could be down here which would make even creatures of near-mindless aggression stay away?
Arsenal picked her way past the half-sunken remains of a skeleton, “I hate this place.” stepping up towards me, “Can we PLEASE go somewhere else? Anywhere! Just make it stop! Puhleeheeheeeze!?” the pleading look on her face was even more pathetic with her ragged mane. For a moment my heart stopped as I looked into her big, sad eyes and pouting lip. If someone could have found a way to weaponize that look the Zebras would have surrendered on the spot. Well, if it were coming from anyone else, at least.
Requiem shifted slightly on my back, pulling her hooves up over her head. Evidently she found Arsenal’s complaining as irritating as I did. I just groaned a moment and shook my head, “We’ll leave when we’re done.” her constant complaining was beginning to get on my nerves. But I couldn’t really blame her for it. This place was truly miserable, and she had reason to be more miserable than most.
We trotted along in silence for a long moment. Tunnels twisting and turning. The muddy water had begun to get thick enough to replace the rain water now. As it grew thicker my PipBuck began to tick quietly again. A dim warmth ran up my legs, along my flanks. The same warmth as the glowing ghoul. It felt nice, nice enough to almost forget everything which had gone wrong. Something in my mind niggled about the ticking from my PipBuck. Complaining that it should be BAD. But it just felt so nice that those voices got drowned out quickly.
For a time I let myself be lost to the wonderful warmth. Walking autonomously down winding corridors. Arsenal continued her unhappiness about the state of our surroundings and her body. But I wasn’t listening any more.
At least, I wasn’t until our path abruptly ended at a metal door. It resembled the doors in the basement of the library. But, instead of a turning lock, there was a faintly glowing terminal mounted to the wall beside it. I stared in confusion at it a few long moments, trying to get my mind to focus on the present. The dim euphoric feeling from the water was making that difficult.
Arsenal let out a groan, “You don’t even know how to use terminals properly, do you?” She pressed one hoof to her face and shook her head, “Just... Just stand over there. I’ll deal with it.” muttering something I couldn’t catch under her breath, “I do hope whatever is beyond that door is dry. My hooves are getting all pruny!” Ah, that was more like what I expected from her.
It only took a few moments of Arsenal playing with the terminal before the door hissed and shuddered. It slid away into the floor to reveal a large, dimly lit room. The floor was, remarkably, dry. There was no sign of the piping inside the room having burst. This room had clearly been reinforced more heavily than the rest of the sewers. Though why I couldn’t grasp at the moment.
For once it wasn’t Requiem who was first through the door. Instead, Arsenal hopped over the ledge and quickly set about shaking the water from her coat. “Well, it’s not as posh as I’d like. But it’s still better than those dreadful soaked tunnels!”
Ducking slightly, I followed Arsenal into the room. Requiem quickly jumped from my back, trotting off to begin her usual survey of the area. She hadn’t seemed particularly happy since I had extracted her from the water. She might trust me, but it seemed she wasn’t content being tethered to me.
For a moment I glanced around the room. It was characteristic of the era, dull grey walls with white lights, but what was in it was more surprising. My eyes caught sight of an overturned table, a topped chess board and scattered pieces nearby. Following the direction the table had fallen from I spotted something stranger. Two skeletons, darkened with age and heat, lay on the floor. Something about them looked wrong, but I couldn’t put my hoof on what. They resembled earth ponies, with no signs of wings or horns, but weren’t shaped quite right. I sat and stared for a long time, trying unsuccessfully to determine what was wrong with them.
A squeal punctured my contemplation, instantly drawing my attention away. That was Arsenal! Without hesitation I rushed across the room through another door which I hadn’t noticed before. Afraid briefly of what I might find there. Had Arsenal been attacked? Found whatever was keeping the zombies away? Chipped a hoof? Some part of me found the last about as likely to make her scream as the first.
Around the corner I caught sight of Arsenal sitting in front of a large open refrigerator. She’d found the food. Of course. I fought the urge to face-hoof at my own stupidity. She’d already begun pulling anything she could find out of the refrigerator without hesitation.
“Didn’t you just get done eating yourself sick?” The question which hung in my mind vocalized even before I realized it.
“Schtut! Uhp!” Arsenal spoke around mouthfuls, rather uncouthly, swallowing a moment later, “You wouldn’t understand. You might be used to being half-starved, but some of us have standards!”
I suppressed a groan, trotting up towards the refrigerator and levitating one of the boxed cakes out of it curiously. My PipBuck clicked a moment as its medical spells registered the object, throwing up radiation warnings and health risks. My gaze went to Arsenal instantly. She was about to take another bite of cake when my hoof intercepted hers, sending the slice flying through the air and splattering across the ground.
“My cake!” the pegasus turned about towards me and glared angrily, “Why would you do that!? Wasting perfectly good food while some ponies are starving!”
I rolled my eyes and actually groaned this time, holding up my PipBuck for her, “Because it’s all irradiated. Do you know how dangerous it is to eat random things you find lying around down here? What if somepony had laced it with poison or something!”
Arsenal just stared at me in disbelief, like she couldn’t even comprehend the idea that somepony would be that cruel, tears welling up in her eyes, “Poisoned... Cake..? What kind of monster would do that!?” Was she even listening to me at all? She seemed to only hear the parts of what I was saying she wanted to.
Now we were going to have to find something to remove radiation. There was something which did that, right? Well, part of me was pretty sure there was. I had to hope that part was right. I wasn’t sure how much radiation Arsenal had been exposed to, but any amount wasn’t healthy. At least, that’s what my mind insisted.
“What a cruel, horrible world. Even the food is poisoned!” Arsenal slammed the door to the refrigerator angrily, stomping off in a huff, “Dirty water, irradiated food, starvation, murder. It’s no wonder nopony wanted to return to the surface for so long! Who would WANT this world!?” Tossing her head in irritation as she stormed off, the soft clinking of chains marking her passing.
Requiem trotted past Arsenal into the kitchen. She was holding a magazine in her mouth. I didn’t get much of a chance to look at it before she leaped back up onto my back. Dropping it onto my spine as I could feel her open it. It seemed I’d been promoted from mount to table. Wonderful.
Irritation rising I stepped back into the other room. My gaze fell again to those odd skeletons, then slowly away from them and around the room again. There was a small mark I had missed the first time. A mark which burned my eyes. It matched the mark on the raider armor, drawn in chalk onto one of the walls with an arrow indicating another doorway.
“Arsenal! We’re leaving!” It wasn’t a question. This was it. What we’d been down here searching for. A mark, a sign of the place we were going.
“Fine! Fine! Ofcourse I’m at your beck and call!” Arsenal rolled her eyes in annoyance and stepped past me, bucking the door open. Stomping out and grinding her teeth.
The halls beyond were drier and cleaner than anywhere else we had been. Following them was easy and fast. The markings left on the walls and floor at every split were easy to see now that I knew to look for them. How many others had been swept away by rain and broken pipes? How much of our trip down here was unnecessary? I wasn’t sure. But today I was going to find more of my past. I was sure of it! There had to be more clues here!
Together we walked down the halls. Arsenal fuming in irritation, Requiem reading her new acquisition and me doing my best to focus on hope. After the prison I needed a little.
A resounding crash echoed through empty hallways as the final door slid open. Arsenal was looking insufferably pleased with herself. She’d opened each door in our path in moments, hacking their terminals with effortless ease. “I suppose such simplicity is to be expected. It’s not as though the muck dwellers who used to live here had reason for better.” She trotted through the door without even looking at what was on the other side, coming to an abrupt stop a moment later, “Eugh. How could ponies LIVE like this?” Well, that didn’t take long.
The weight of chains had returned to my legs. A soft pulsing heat beat beneath my collar. This was nothing compared to the prison, but the feeling remained. I had taken the time to obliterate each of the markers on the walls as we passed. It was a pointless gesture, but cathartic.
I muscled my way past Arsenal, who had stopped just inside the doorway, to get a better view of the room beyond. In the dim gloom it was difficult to tell how large the room was. Far above us was an arching ceiling, cracked and broken in places. The floor was littered with debris from above. The sound and smell of flowing water permeated the massive chamber, but I couldn’t see where it was coming from.
Only the center of the room had any real illumination. White lamps hummed quietly upon tall stands, their pale light casting long shadows. Broken segments of metal surrounded the center of the room. A makeshift fort constructed of salvaged material inside a much larger room. Symbols like those at the prison had been painted over top of the slaver-marks along the walls. The distant echo of chains mixed with falling water, a sound nopony else could hear.
For a moment I just stood and stared. This place felt familiar, an echo of a distant past. I had been here before. Phantasmal voices floated at the edge of my mind, their words too far to hear. Without thinking I walked onwards.
Past the outer walls I strode, letting the sound of distant voices grow. The ground was littered with shell casings, blood and scattered bones. Overturned tables sat backed into corners. In a few places I could see skeletal limbs poking from behind them. Slowly I walked onwards, a distant pulse in my mind demanded I couldn’t stop now. Past the gathering area I moved. It was here. It had to be here.
Darkness engulfed the room beyond. Only a thin strip of pale light filtered from beyond. But I didn’t need the light to know what was there. My mind carried me without seeing, without thinking. Beside me were cages, rusted from years of exposure to the wet air here.
My hooves moved without my input. In a moment I found myself standing before a large cage. In the dim light I could barely make out chains attached to the floor of the cell. Something else was with them. A moment’s concentration and my PipBuck glowed a brilliant green. Bones. Small, under developed bones. The bones of a foal. The cracked remains of a small horn jutted from their skull. A unicorn foal. The chains were still wrapped around those bones, as though to proclaim that even death was not freedom from this place.
The voices grew louder, began to resolve into something meaningful. My eyes blurred, not wanting to look at what was before me. The weight of chains and the burning sensation beneath my collar resounded within me. The whole world span and fell away. I didn’t want to be here. I shouldn’t have come. But now, my mind carried me without my consent.
Darkness and rushing water. The smell of mold. The soft, wet squish of the bedroll beneath me. The cutting, strangling tightness around my throat. Chains so short they made even standing difficult. These feelings were familiar.
This time, however, I could hear something else. The breathing and movement of other ponies. Ponies nearby. The subtle sound of clanking chains. Somewhere I heard a cough, echoing through the almost silent room. Nopony said anything. Everything there was to say had already been said. Now we waited, in cold silence, for whatever ending might come.
For a moment I was blind as brilliant light suddenly flooded the hall. Surprised yelps reached through my confusion, the others as surprised as I was. Three ponies stood in the doorway, the light behind them obscuring their colors. The two on either side were carrying something in their mouths, but I couldn’t make out what. The third was larger than they were, standing easily a head higher.
The trio marched through the room as I backed away. Fear ran through my veins like ice. A nameless, sourceless terror from somewhere further in my past. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, but here.
My eyes adjusted slowly to the harsh light. A third figure was following them. I could just make out the silhouette of a horn against the light. Why weren’t they afraid of these ponies? Why didn’t they hate them? The idea that there were ponies somewhere who accepted these acts was mind boggling to me. Even as starved, lonely and pained as I was, that just seemed beyond possibility.
The trio moved between the cages, stopping outside of the largest. Inside I could make out a dark grey unicorn, a light blue earth pony and a third pony who was blocked by the others. I recognized them. One of them had been my friend once. One had teased me constantly when we were young. I knew them, but the names wouldn’t come. The details weren’t there.
“These three should suit what you need.” the largest pony spoke, waving a hoof at the cage.
The unicorn peered into the cage beyond, “You think so? You know I have some very discerning clients. If they can’t do what you say they can-”
“I assure you I have not overstated their skills in any way.” the slaver leader cut his would-be buyer off, his deep voice drowning whatever words of protest were spoken, “We acquired them just recently. You will find that their skills have not dulled at all. I’m certain those leg-mounted terminals will be most useful to you as well.”
A grumble escaped the Unicorn’s lips, “They’d best be for what I’m paying you! I could buy six normal slaves at this price, and you know it!”
A wicked grin cracked across the leader’s face, “I also know you’ll pay. Because I’ve never let you down before.” a deep, rolling laugh swept across the room.
Tears welled up in my eyes. They weren’t just taking us away, or buying us, or selling us. They were enjoying it. They were friends. They had friends. How... How could any pony sink to this level? The idea was unacceptable to me. How desperately I wanted to speak out, to tell them what was wrong, to remind them of the way things should be! But I stayed silent. The burning pain in my flank, the gnawing emptiness in my stomach, the feeling of terror looking at the sticks the guards carried. I knew that trying to defy my captors would only lead to misery for myself and others. At least I could hold out hope that they would be treated well.
The leader of the slavers banged a hoof against the cage, “Hey! Wake up in there! Today’s your lucky day. You get out of this shit hole and on with your damned lives.” his voice held no mirth.
The three ponies gradually began to move, shifting to stand up. Silently I watched as the leader opened the cage, beginning to remove the chains from the floor. The guards stood nearby, ready for any resistance. It seemed things would go smoothly as they trotted from the cage.
The seven ponies made it half way across the room before the blue earth pony turned. Shifting his stance just slightly. No! Nonono! Don’t do it! I wanted to scream warnings, to try and make him stop, but I was too afraid. He bucked at the slaver leader, “We’re not yours to sell, you monster! You can’t force us to work!” The chains constricted his movement, making the buck weak at best. The leader didn’t even bother to dodge, barely even humoring his captive enough to roll his head to one side.
The response was swift and unflinching. The two guards leaped upon him. A resounding electrical crack echoed through the chamber, accompanied by a scream of pain. The blue earth pony hit the ground, limply. It took only a moment for him to begin to recover. Another crack, another scream, again he fell. Each time he struggled towards his feet they repeated the process. Their leader simply stood and watched until his captive could barely keep his eyes open.
Only then did he speak, stepping forward and dipping his head down. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the mirthless, vile laughter which followed told me all I needed to know. The guards gathered the broken pony and carried him away with the others. A friend, an enemy and an unknown, gone from my life forever. I sat in the darkness and cried.
Tears blurred my vision as my legs felt like dropping out from under me again. This place was dead, abandoned and destroyed. Whatever hopes I had of finding another marker here, another place to go, were dashed. I wanted to stand and cry. To just forget everything again. Let life slip away from me, return to how I had been. Pointless, meaningless, without direction or thought.
But something else lingered in the back of my mind. A quiet voice from my past. If I walked away now, what would become of Requiem? That voice insisted she needed somepony to look after her. That abandoning her was worse than dieing again. The usually dissenting voices, those which insisted hope was not worth suffering for, were strangely silent on this.
My head hung low as I stood, slowly plodding back towards Arsenal and Requiem. No matter how easy it would be, how much happier I would be, I couldn’t abandon her. She had lost her home, her family, her friends. I was all she had left. Leaving her now would mean abandoning her to a slow, lonely death. I couldn’t do that. She deserved better.
Blinking the last tears from my eyes I took a deep breath and slowly, shakily, stepped back into the light.
Arsenal was carefully picking her way across the room, avoiding touching any of the skeletons littering the floor. Somehow she managed to look even more miserable than she had when I rescued her. “How anypony could live in a place like this I will never understand.” I considered answering her, but really didn’t want to deal with it right now.
I plodded slowly back across the room, looking around for any sign of Requiem. I couldn’t feel her on my back any more. Part of me was worried, if she’d run off somewhere I might not be able to find her. But that part was quickly silenced as I caught sight of a bright red tail poking out from behind one of the overturned tables.
Requiem had taken up a place behind it, directly beneath a light, reading her magazine. She backed away the moment she noticed me looking over the table. My heart ached again as I had to swallow the urge to start crying again. Even now she didn’t trust me. I wasn’t sure if she ever would. My imagination sprang up as I saw a future of her growing up and growing old, never speaking a word or connecting with anypony. A lonely, damaged, pained life. All I could do was whisper, “I’m sorry...” closing my eyes and stepping away. How much I wanted to reassure her the world would be well again. To tell her she didn’t have to fear. But I knew better than that. I just couldn’t bring myself to lie to her about something that important.
For a moment I was at a loss. I had nowhere left to go. This place was empty and abandoned. No new markers. The only memories here were as desolate as my surroundings. The slavers had been here once, but that was long ago. I had come so far, done so much, and now there was nothing? My head throbbed, my legs ached.
I stormed across the room, smashing skeletons as hard as I could, “Why? Why doesn’t anyone have any answers!?” without thinking I scooped one of the skulls up with my magic and glared at it, “Who am I!? Who were you? Where did I come from? Why can’t I remember? What happened to me??” Unreasonable demands, even for a living pony. I hurled the skull across the room as hard as I could, over the walls and out of the light.
Arsenal groaned quietly as she sat in a small clear area surrounded by skeletons, “I want to go home...” her voice was quiet and shaky.
Without thinking I snapped back, “Then go! Fly off back home! Leave the world behind! Why should you care!?”
The pegasus responded in misery, even worse than before, “I can’t fly... Can’t go home.”
Couldn’t fly? That was what her misery was about? My response came from somewhere deep inside, “Then walk!” practically charging up to her, “Walk until your hooves crack!” my mind echoed with a chorus of rage, “Walk until your legs ache!” unwanted voices demanded I teach her the way of the world, “Until the wind and rain bite at your coat!” demanded she had to know misery, “Until your eyes burn with sand!” said that she couldn’t possibly know what it was like, “Until your throat bleeds with thirst!” no one could know what it was like, “Until you can’t walk any further!” they wished to show her the truth of the darkness, “Until- Until...”
The words died in my throat. ‘Until even your hope dies’. The chorus in my mind demanded she had to know the truth. To see the wasteland for what it was. But somewhere a part of me protested. It claimed that those words were a worse curse than should be placed upon anypony. Yet, here I was, about to spew such a horrid thing to a victim. The closest thing I had to a friend. For the first time since I awoke in the Junkyard, I felt old. The weight of a past I couldn’t remember settling on my mind. Where had all of that come from?
Arsenal had begun backing away from me at my first declaration. Fear obvious in her eyes. Each soul-crushing demand drove her further from me. Staring up at me with those incredibly sad, miserable eyes. She looked like she was about to break down crying.
A sudden gurgle from her stomach changed that, as it decided that moment was a perfect time to violently eject its contents. Suddenly I found myself standing in the warm, sticky remains of what had been cake a short time ago as Arsenal regurgitated the contents of her stomach all over the floor.
“Uuugh.” Arsenal couldn’t do much more than groan in misery afterwards. My PipBuck clicked slowly, the gentle euphoria from the tunnels returning. This time I backed away quickly. However good it felt, I was -not- going to stand in vomit to get more of it!
Stomping the goo from my hooves I considered what I was going to do. Arsenal was obviously sick. But I was out of medical supplies. Worse, I had no idea what kind I’d need to treat this! We had to find somewhere to get her help.
Of course, things were never that easy. A low hiss spread through the room. Barely loud enough to be audible over the falling water. Fear ran through me as I triggered my EFS. Dozens of red markers were visible. The zombies had found us again. They must have been in the water tunnels! I could hear water splashing as dozens of bodies landed in the darkness.
Requiem scrambled out from behind the table, magazine in her mouth. A moment later she had stuffed it into one of my saddle bags and was hiding behind me. The soggy, squishy hoofbeats from beyond the lit area resounded in my mind. I turned my attention back towards Arsenal, who looked like she was about to collapse. Why did the world seem to pick the worst possible times for horrible things to happen? Was there a good time for horrible things to happen? I had to resist the urge to let my mind wander.
It was only a moment later when the first zombie pony leaped up one of the metal walls. It clung to the edge with rotting forelegs, hissing angrily and struggling to climb over. Arsenal was barely standing, I was nearly out of ammo, Requiem couldn’t fight nearly this many at once. My heart raced, desperately looking around the camp. There had to be somewhere we could go from here! Right? Right!?
The distinctive crack of Arsenal’s weapon filled the air. The first zombie to make it over the wall collapsed into a pile of pink ash. “I may... May be sick. But I’m not... Not dead, yet!” she certainly wasn’t well, either! Two more zombies scrambled over the wall with a splat as they hit the ground.
“There! A ladder!” It lead up towards darkness, but anything had to be better than here right now! I sprung to my feet and began to rush across the room towards it. Requiem was already on my back as I moved, but Arsenal was struggling to even manage to stand up right. Desperate to not get caught here I wrapped her in my magic and floated her with me.
“Put me down! I can walk for myself!” Even now she continued to protest the idea of accepting help from a surface-dweller? Pride had its advantages, but that was definitely not one of them. She flapped her wings weakly, turning around in my magic field and firing twice more. Two more of the zombies fell to the ground unmoving, “See!? I’m fine! You muckdwellers worry too much!” Wasn’t she the one complaining about how horrible things were just a moment ago?
I scrambled up the ladder as fast as I could. Requiem was clinging to me, desperate not to fall off. Behind me Arsenal floated, continuing to take shots at the zombies even as we ascended. In a moment I could see a marehole cover. My heart raced with panic, tiny bits of light leaked through the edges. There was a chance to get out. If we could get to the surface the zombies would stop chasing us, right!?
I rushed the cover as fast as I could, throwing my weight against it. Pleasebeunblockedpleasbeunblockedpleasebeunblocked!
My impact sent the cover flying through the air, landing back on hard pavement with a resounding smash. For a moment I scrambled to get my hooves through the hole, struggling to pull myself further upwards out of the sewers. The hole was almost too small for me to fit through, built to be big enough to be comfortable for a normal pony. Panic ran through my mind, what if I got stuck!? The thought of just teleporting out into the light beyond barely registered.
A moment of scrambling brought me up into the light. Behind me I pulled Arsenal from the darkness with my magic. The distinctive crack of her weapon firing several more times, “You’d better run!” shaking a hoof at the open hole. Bravado had won out over her fear, it seemed. In a moment I released my magic and she fell to the ground in a heap, “Oof! Be more gentle!”
Still in a panic, I grabbed the marehole cover with my magic as the first of the zombies got close enough to stick a hoof through the hole. I dropped the cover onto their head with a resounding splat. The sound of screaming and toppling echoed weakly from beneath the surface. A leg leaking black ooze still above the surface, severed by the impact of the cover.
My heart throbbed angrily a few long moments before my legs gave out from under me. Slumping to the ground as the adrenaline of the chase began to fade. Arsenal moved shakily, “Did you have to be so rough? You could have warned me!” a groan escaped my lips. I wasn’t in any mood to keep arguing with her after that. Requiem leaped from my back to stand nearby, just close enough for me to see her scowling in annoyance at Arsenal. It seemed she wasn’t any more pleased with our new companion right now than I was.
Slowly the three of us began to gather ourselves together again. Sitting near the now-blocked sewer entrance. Around us were piles of debris. Broken metal, rocks, wheels and gears. Buildings were visible over top of them not too far away, along with train tracks criss-crossing the entire area. The raider leader had called this place Central Junction, and my PipBuck agreed. A train switching and repair yard. It must have been the largest in the area with a name like that. Part of me protested this place was important, but I couldn’t begin to put a hoof on why.
For a moment everything was quiet. Then, all at once, a figure burst over top of a scrap pile. The rotting, grey and red color of a zombie! A cracked, angry voice filling the air, “GIT OFFA MY YARD, YA SHAMBLERS!” The silhouette of a shotgun in a battle saddle visible at the figure’s side.
I screamed in time with Arsenal, the two of us backing together. Requiem leaped behind us without hesitation, scrambling for cover. Without thinking I wrapped my shield around all three of us. My heart nearly leaping from my chest. Another zombie pony!? And this one could talk! And had a gun! And... A hat? Yes, definitely a hat. A large hat, now more patches than actual hat. Only small patches of blue and white stripes visible outside of the bill.
“Eh? What? Zombies don’ scream!” The strange pony turned his head to one side as he descended the scrap pile towards us, “An’ they don’ got no fancy shields, neither!” Trotting right up to tap on my shield with a forehoof. The way it squished against the outside of my glowing dome was rather disturbing. He was definitely the same kind of creature as the zombie ponies. I could see that clearly now. The rotting flesh was a bit different, however. One of his eyes appeared to have grown over entirely.
My heart seemed to have stopped trying to escape, instead settling on lodging itself firmly in my throat. I opened my mouth to speak, only for Arsenal to beat me to it, “You crazy old stallion! I almost shot you!” Okay, not quite the words I would have chosen, but accurate.
The not-a-zombie pony turned his head to look us over, “Yer a pegasus! Ain’t seen one uh them since... Since...” he trailed off a few moments, “Ah don’ remember.” eye straying towards me, “An’ yer one uh those false Goddesses th’ radio goes on ‘bout!” Part of me wanted to groan at being called a goddess again, shrinking away from that comparison just as much now as before. I didn’t deserve to be called that. “Didn’ think any of y’all would come out here!”
“You’re a ZOMBIE!” Arsenal protested, “How can you complain about what we are!?”
“Ah ain’t no zombie! Ah’m an Earth Pony! Ah’m Th’ Conductor! That’s what they used ta call me. Back when ponies used ta ride th’ trains. Awful lonely here now. Only th’ blasted shamblers ta keep me company.”
Arsenal opened her mouth to continue her protest, but I silenced her with a hoof, “How long have you been here..?” I had a sneaking suspicion this old earth pony was even worse off than I was.
There was a long pause as he stared at me, “Ah don’ know. Long time. Alla mah trains ‘ve started fallin’ apart. Cept my baby. They built ‘er to last. Sealed ‘er up right good!” he grinned, showing off a mouth full of crooked teeth, many of which were missing, “C’mon. Ah’ll show ya ‘round. Don’ get many visitors!”
Shakily I rose to my feet, following after this strange pony as he began to walk away. Arsenal and Requiem both gave me skeptical looks and all I could do was a weak smile in return, “He seems nice enough! What do we have to lose?” Requiem just rolled her eyes as Arsenal shook her head. But, they did follow after me.
“This here’s one uh the oldest trains in th’ yard! She was built way back b’fore th’ war started!” ‘That there’ was a rusted pile of crap. The ancient metal having long since given way. Only the faintest resemblance to a train engine remained. The Conductor lead onwards, “An’ this’s a real classic! She ran fer years! One uh th’ first t’ make th’ trip t’ Zebra lands ‘n back!” Another rusted out pile of junk sat before us. It was quickly becoming clear that the Conductor was not all there. In fact, I wasn’t sure he was there at all! He seemed to believe that all these trains still worked. His collection!
As I followed along my mind began to wander. My interest in his tour quickly waning. I began to search my PipBuck for anything else to listen to, only to come across a recording I didn’t recognize. Labeled simply as “Radio Broadcast #3”. When had I found that? I wasn’t sure, but anything was better than listening to somepony ramble about trains which hadn’t worked in centuries! Well, I could hope at least.
“Evacuation is complete. Final forces withdraw in fifteen minutes. Victorious will leave threatened airspace in thirty minutes. All forces who plan to leave with us had best be on board before that happens!
“Recon Team 17 reports movement near relay broadcaster. Dispatch recovery and neutralization team. We cannot afford to have anypony recover records of our flight.
“Recovery team is to meet for extraction at fall-back point after mission is finished. Should they fail to return, dispatch a second neutralization team. Find those who stopped them and eradicate all survivors.
“Nopony on the surface or the air can be allowed to follow us. Too many lives hang upon our wings.
“Fly steady. Victorious out.”
My mind went blank for a moment. The whole message made no sense at all. Relay broadcaster? Wasn’t that what the Applejack’s Rangers were using the radio tower for? Fly steady..? There were pegasi in the radio station as well. Were they the recovery team? That would mean... There were more pegasi on the way to attack the Applejack’s Rangers!
A chill ran up my spine at remembering the massacre within the radio station. If they could do that in enclosed spaces, how much worse would fighting them on open ground be? We had to get back to the hospital, right now!
The Conductor had reached the end of his tour, “An’ this’s where they kept mah baby! ... Th’ Rainbow Express!” I only barely caught a hooffull of his words. My mind preoccupied with the worries of what was certain to happen soon, if it wasn’t already happening right now!
“Arsenal! Requiem! We’re leaving!” I straightened up and didn’t even bother to see if either of them were listening. Galloping away from the Conductor, following the marker on my map. Fast as my legs would carry me I ran, weaving between piles of junk. Somewhere behind me I could hear the Conductor shouting for us to come back soon. Requiem kept pace with me surprisingly well give her size, Arsenal falling slightly behind.
“H-hey! Wait up!” Arsenal panted as she ran. My mind was too occupied with my own stupidity and lack of focus! I had this message before! My PipBuck must have acquired it at the radio station! Stupid, stupid, stupid! I should have known this was coming before! Couldn’t stop now, couldn’t wait. Had to get back before something horrible happened!
The smell reached me before the sight. Roasted meat mixed with an angry electric tang. Cresting a hill I could see the hospital. The patched together area near the top had collapsed again, the walls were broken and battered, no signs of movement outside the building.
Fear welled up in the back of my mind, had they all been killed? Was this all my fault? Stupid, stupid, stupid! I should have checked my PipBuck earlier! I should have brought Arsenal back for treatment straight away! Should have done something different. Been here when they needed me! The fear I had felt in Central Junction returned full force.
For a moment I almost turned around to leave. My heart was heavy and worn, after everything else which had happened today. Desperate for something, anything, to cling to. Or to just make the hurting stop. Then I spotted it, a single friendly marker on my EFS. Somepony was down there. Somepony was alive!
Without thinking I rushed down the hill. Somewhere behind me Arsenal was huffing and wheezing in her attempt to keep up with me. Requiem was practically under my hooves as we descended, weaving in and out between my legs to avoid the larger rocks. She had kept pace with me all the way from Central Junction, never once leaving my side.
Movement in the rubble gave me momentary hope. Then I caught sight of what it was. A black, shiny mass pulled itself from a collapsed section of wall. It looked more insect than pony. Bulging eyes and a long segmented tail. Like the armor I had seen in the radio station.
The black-clad pegasus spread their wings and bolted into the air, seemingly without noticing my presence. My EFS still marked them as friendly. Friendly? They had attacked the Applejack’s Rangers! How could they possibly be friendly!?
My wonder about how the PipBuck determined hostility was violently interrupted by the scream of missiles. Three streamers of light and smoke erupted from the upper levels of the hospital. But the pegasus was in full retreat, weaving between the missiles with practiced ease. In a moment they were little more than a spot on the horizon.
I wanted to spread my wings and fly after them. To find out where they were going. To ask where they came from. So many questions swam in my mind. But, I had to swallow those desires for now. There were still survivors here! They were still fighting back! Without thinking I rushed onwards.
The main gate to the hospital had been blown from its rollers. It sat crumpled and beaten across the courtyard. By the time I reached it there was already a figure outside the doors waiting for me. A familiar ice blue unicorn dressed in dark red robes. A name came to my mind, Frozen Fog. The Head Scribe was here, meeting with me? That surprised me, given the obvious contempt he had shown when last we met.
“You’re not welcome here. Go home.” His words stung. I wasn’t expecting him to be polite, but to turn us away immediately?
“Why? What happened here? There must be something I can do to help!” The voices in my head protested that it was my fault. I should have been here earlier. Should do something now that I was here!
Frozen Fog snorted, “I believe you have done quite enough. Or are you going to tell me you were unaware that your little excursion was the source of this catastrophe?”
My... Excursion? “I... What?” My mind raced, what had I done wrong? Had I made some mistake somewhere along the way? I was late returning, but that wouldn’t cause this!
The scribe gritted his teeth, speaking with barely contained rage, “You. Went. To. The. Radio. Station. You. Copied. The. Recording.” my blood froze in my veins, “We captured one of the attackers. They found the records of the recording being duplicated. Found the dead Paladin you left behind. They came here, for us! Do you understand now!? This is your fault!”
My legs felt weak. My stomach churned. My eyes refused to focus properly. This... This was because of me? This death? How many had been lost here? How many more would still be lost? I... I couldn’t do anything here. He was right. I hung my head low, intent to leave, when I felt a tug. Requiem was sitting by my side, trying to get my attention. She was staring at something behind us.
Slowly I raised my vision. Arsenal was huffing and barely managing to walk as she crossed the destroyed gate. Requiem watching her approach in silence. Somewhere far above I was certain the remaining Paladins were as well.
“And you’re consorting with our enemies!? You really were nothing but a monster.” Fog’s words cut into my mind. Parts of me reeled. I had saved Arsenal from a fate worse than death! I had protected Requiem’s life! I had stopped the raiders who destroyed her home! I was not a monster! I... I wasn’t a monster... I couldn’t be. Parts of me agreed with him. I hadn’t just stopped the raiders, I slaughtered them. I hadn’t saved Requiem, I had avenged her. I put her in danger by attacking the base. It was my fault she was shot in the first place. My mind fought with itself.
Arsenal stumbled a moment, her voice almost hoarse as she gasped for air, “Aurora..? I don’t... I don’t feel so well.” She swayed briefly, before collapsing to the ground. Her eyes didn’t even close properly as she hit, staring off in different directions.
No! Nonono! Not now! I couldn’t let her die because of me! I pushed her even after everything she’d been through! I should have carried her! Whatever happened now, I couldn’t just let her die! My attention spun back towards Frozen Fog. He was looking down from the top of the stairs at Arsenal’s comatose form.
“You... You’re going to help her! I know you have to have something here to help her with!” I very nearly charged across the yard. Everything inside me screamed that I had to make him understand!
“Help? Help our enemy? Why would I do that!? She’s probably the one who called the attackers in the first place!” He waved off the idea with a forehoof, dismissive of even thinking of it, “Take her back to whatever pit you crawled out of. Find her help there. You seemed so sure you could take care of that filly, last time you were here.” his gaze turned towards Requiem, who scrambled back to hide under my tail. I could practically feel the angry death-gaze she gave from her hiding place.
“She is not your enemy! She’s... She’s just a pony! A pony who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time!” … Like me. A pony who had been abused by the world. Part of me wondered if that was why I was helping her. Was it because it was the right thing to do? Or was it just because it’s what I wished someone had done for me? I did my best to put the question from my mind. Now was not the time.
“She’s a pegasus! Probably one of the ones who attacked us in the radio station!” Frozen Fog trotted down the stairs, moving towards Arsenal, “You should be thankful I don’t order her executed on the spot!”
Without thinking I shoved a wing between the unicorn and my friend, “You said before you didn’t trust me. That you remembered what the last Alicorn who came here did.” I lowered my head, pressing nose to nose to him, “I’m asking you this then. Do you want to find out what I will do if you decide to kill her?”
The conflict in my mind grew stronger, parts of me insisted this was the worst possible thing I could do. Threatening the one source of hope I had? But... He wasn’t going to help her, was he? He was going to just let her die! I had to do... To do something!
Frozen Fog just laughed at that and pressed back against me, “You!? You could barely even manage to speak for yourself! You couldn’t possi-”
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” The unicorn’s complaints were violently ended by another voice. A familiar voice, though lacking the metallic twang from our last meeting. Star Paladin Lilac silenced Fog, “Fog! Are you really going to do this again!?” Again? Was it really common enough for him to react to others this way?
Frozen Fog shrunk back slightly, “Lilac. You should be in -bed-. You’re not well enough to be up and abo-”
“Shove it, Fog. I’m well enough to use my own damn wheelchair. I’m not letting you pin this one on somepony who had nothing to do with it!” Lilac’s response came even before the unicorn finished speaking. Fog just folded his ears down and shrunk further at her complaint.
Wheelchair? My gaze strayed finally from the unicorn, towards the other voice. At the top of the stairs, just barely outside the doors, was a light purple earth pony seated in a wheelchair. Half of her coat was missing, the marks of freshly healed burns across almost half of her body. Two of her legs were completely gone, barely more than stumps. One of her eyes was sealed over with scar tissue. It was like somepony had come and cut her in half, then pieced her back together. ‘Awful’ would have been a step up.
“We can’t help her! She’s a pegasus! They were the ones who-” Fog resumed his previous complaints without missing a beat.
“Whatever she was, she’s a victim now! Or are you going to tell me that you’ll turn somepony in need away because you don’t like their ancestors!?” Again Lilac cut Fog off. Was he going to finish a single sentence in this conversation? “You took the oath, same as all of us! I wouldn’t think you’d throw that away just because of this.”
The unicorn was looking profoundly annoyed at this point, grinding his teeth. Even I could tell he wanted to yell at Lilac, but swallowed it despite that. A long pause filled the air, “Fine! You’re right. We’ll help her.” he glared back up at me, “You, bring her. I’ll show you where to put her.” he turned about in a huff, storming off inside.
Lilac sat quietly on the stairs a few moments, “I’m impressed. Fog must like you.” LIKE me? He’d just yelled at me! And tried to blame me for them being attacked! “Usually he’s way less friendly.” THAT was friendly!? I let out a quiet groan and slowly levitated Arsenal off the ground. Moving to follow after Fog.
As I passed Lilac I could see Requiem pause on the steps. She sat by the side of the wheelchair where Lilac couldn’t see, looking up at severely injured purple mare. Lilac spoke quietly, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. We should have been there. Done something.” Just barely I caught sight of Requiem pressing her cheek against Lilac’s leg and beginning to cry, before the doors swung closed behind me. I wanted to stay and watch, to find out more, but Arsenal’s life was in danger.
The interior of the hospital followed the same design as the outside. Soft pink walls, hard tile flooring, all of it faded and stained with age. Frozen Fog lead me down the corridors in silence. His irritation over Lilac’s speech was palpable. Despite the parts of me which wanted to rub his face in it, I remained silent. Don’t make the ones who are about to help your friend angry.
Finally we arrived at a small room. Well, it felt small to me. A medical bed sat against one wall. A large metal tube with a butterfly cross on it stood against the opposite wall. “Put her on the bed.” I followed Fog’s instructions silently, “Good. Now. Go away. I will get her back to her old self. Or whatever passes for a self.”
My heart skipped a beat, “You want me to leave her alone? With you? You just threatened to let her die!” The image of her slowly wasting away on the table as Frozen Fog stood by doing nothing swam through my mind.
Fog glared at me, “Because you take up too much space! If you’re not going to help, then get out of my way!” he began to pace through the room, grabbing instruments from a shelving unit in the corner, “Not like I would expect you to know what’s wrong with her.” Augh! Was everypony I met with an education going to talk down to me!? At least Scraps was nice!
Scraps. She’d offered to let me stay with her at the Junkyard. I didn’t have anywhere left to go now. My past had run out, my direction had dried up. Maybe I should just go back. Her home was safe, at least for now. Take Requiem and Arsenal with me, if these ponies weren’t going to treat us better.
The sound of metallic thumping drew my attention back to reality. Another member of the Applejack’s Rangers came galloping up the hallway towards us, “Fog! Sir! One of the Pegasi escaped. They flew off above the cloud cover, before we could shoot them down.” Shouting down the halls even before he got close enough to see me. For a moment I was afraid he might come rushing through the doorway and ram right into me!
Frozen Fog just gritted his teeth again, “Then we’ll have to pack up and leave. Spread the word to the others. Tomorrow morning we rig the hospital with explosives. We’ll find a new home.” he cast an angry glare at me, “Somewhere we’ll be safe. Now go away. I have a patient to tend to!”
The paladin backed away, turning his head to look up at me. He cleared his throat quietly, “You’d best leave Fog alone. He gets grouchy when ponies interrupt his work.”
“You don’t say.”
“Come on.” he motioned to me. I was still worried about Arsenal, but right now Fog was right, I couldn’t do any good standing here. Slowly I stood and followed the armor-clad pony down the hallways, “I’m sure he can get your friend put back together. Those medical machines are amazing. Creepy, but amazing.”
“Medical machines?” That piqued my interests. Some part of my mind hummed with recognition.
The unnamed pony nodded his head, “Those big metal tubes. They’re some kind of automated medical machines. Got shipped here before the war.” we rounded a corner together to find a room containing a single small terminal, “Here we go. If you want to know more about them, there’s some old audio log recordings.”
Now I was really curious. It didn’t take long to hook my PipBuck to the terminal and begin copying the files on it. Four files, three were labeled as medical logs. The fourth seemed to be some kind of medical data. I copied all of them, it wasn’t as though there was a reason to leave them behind.
“It’s a shame.” The Paladin with me commented quietly, “If Fog’s right, we’ll end up destroying those machines. None of us have the knowledge to disconnect them without damaging them.” That was surprising, hadn’t they been running this place for ages?
I looked away from the terminal, disconnecting as the transfer finished, “None of you? Even after being here so long?”
The paladin shook his head, beginning to walk again, “Well. Scribe Waffle Iron would have known. He was the one who’d spent the most time studying how they were connected. But, he died in the attack today. Without him, the best we could do is make an educated guess and hope for the best.”
Scribe Waffle Iron? Lilac had referred to the scribe I first met as Waffle. “How... How many of you are left?”
My guide didn’t miss much of a beat as we walked up a set of stairs, “Eight of us. Including Lilac. Waffle Iron, Willow, Raindrop and Elder Muffins all died in the attack.” his voice was graven, even through the speakers of his armor.
For a long moment I was silent, following him quietly. My mind drifted. Four more dead, and how many more pegasi? How many had died here today because I was too slow? The thought churned in the back of my mind, long and slow.
Finally he shoved a door open, revealing a roof, “Here. You can stay up here tonight. We should be safe until morning, but we don’t have anywhere set up inside which would be big enough for you to sleep in.”
Stepping out onto the roof I let my mind wander again, the Paladin who had lead me around departing silently. Requiem was off with Lilac somewhere. Arsenal was on a bed, being examined. I was alone, in a building full of ponies there was no one here who would want to listen to me.
Slowly I sank to the ground, looking out over the edge of the building. Evening was fast approaching. The distant light of the sun beginning to fade from the clouds. Soon everything would be wrapped in darkness again.
My heart sank with my legs. Today I had murdered. I had destroyed. I had weathered and fallen and cried and lost. I had run out of things to believe in. The weight of it all fell on me now that we were out of danger. I closed my eyes and tears began to flow. For my friends, for my past, for my future. All I wanted to do was let my sorrow carry me away.
Hours passed in silence. Darkness covered the sky. Tears stained my face. My legs were heavy. My heart and mind were numb. My whole body felt empty. Desperate for anything to take me away from this place, I slowly ticked the audio logs on. I would listen, try to rest.
“The Ministry of Arcane Sciences finished installing the first of their automated medical pods today.
“I still think they’re a terrible idea. Ponies need ponies to heal them. Not some impersonal tube. But, if these things work even half as well as they’re supposed to it’ll cut down our work dramatically.
“I’ve been told I’m supposed to keep records of their use, for further study. Figures, they send us something still in testing. Sometimes I don’t think the Ministries give a damn about what happens on the front lines! It’s bad enough having to treat the worst medivac patients. Now I have to keep records of their damn testing too.
“Ugh. I’d better stop or I’m going to spend all day angry. Tomorrow we’ll begin using these things on some of the injured soldiers coming in. I hope they work. I don’t want to have to send any more apology letters...”
Part of my mind protested the idea that this pony could blame the Ministries for trying to help! Another, larger, part of me was confused about what the Ministries were. The Ministry of Arcane Sciences. That sounded so familiar, but I just couldn’t place it. I tripped the second recording, maybe something more there..?
“First tests of the healing pods have been positive. Automatic diagnosis and treatment have been both quick and effective. Nearly a hundred percent recover rate in subjects. Guess that sometimes even the Ministries can do something right.
“We’ve encountered a few minor problems. Most notably that those subjects who were conscious when put in complain about the intense discomfort caused by the devices. For now I’m ordering that any individual to be treated should be sedated first. The medical units will purge the sedatives from their system as well, but at least it gets us fewer complaints.
“The effects on short-term injuries and less severe damage has been astounding. In one case we even managed to re-attach a severed leg which had been preserved! Tomorrow we’ll begin administering treatments to long-term patients.”
Recovering severed limbs? Maybe there was some hope for Arsenal’s recovery after all. She might even get her wings back! She’d definitely be thrilled by that idea. Though my thoughts strayed to the question of whether or not she’d fly off back home and leave us behind. She really had no reason to keep following me, after all.
There was one more recording.
“We’ve encountered a significant limitation on the healing properties of these machines. Long term or chronic damage, which has already had a chance to heal through natural means, won’t be repaired properly. Yesterday we attempted to use them to help a soldier who had suffered a severed leg a month ago. The machine reported him as being healthy!
“Healthy!? He’s missing a leg! Whatever system they’re using to determine the subject’s state doesn’t seem to be able to determine the difference between healed old wounds and unwounded individuals. This is going to cause us some problems, I’m sure.
“Unfortunately this destroys any hope we had of being able to restore long-term injury victims to full capabilities. I’ve heard some rumors of the Ministry of Peace and Ministry of Technology working on a solution to that. I’ll believe that when I see it.
“We’ll continue to administer uses of the machines to injured patients and collect medical data. But I don’t expect any further major breakthroughs.”
Oh. My heart sank again. However worrying the idea of Arsenal leaving was, the idea of her being crippled for the rest of her life seemed too cruel. I thought briefly of Lilac’s state. Had she gone through one of these machines to save her? She was certainly whole the first time we met...
The soft click of the door echoed in the silence of the night. Soon joined by a quiet squeaking. Looking up I could see a figure in a wheelchair approaching. The odd shape of the silhouette told me it was Lilac again. “Hope I’m not interrupting.”
I shook my head, then remembered that it was the middle of the night, “No.”
A slight stirring on her chair attracted my attention a moment before Requiem leaped down onto the rooftop. She’d been riding with Lilac? She trusted Lilac enough not to hurt her, though I wasn’t certain why. The moment she was on the rooftop Requiem began to move. Roll, cartwheel, buck, kick, dive, bound. A strange kind of pattern to her movement. Practice of something? I wasn’t sure.
Lilac let out a quiet chuckle, “She wanted somewhere to stretch her legs. Had something she wanted to practice. Thought the roof might be a good place. Wasn’t expecting anypony up here.”
Had Requiem actually spoken to Lilac? That idea felt terrifying and delighting. Requiem wouldn’t even speak to me, but the thought there might be someone, somewhere she trusted enough to talk to? It gave me a faint glimmer of hope for her future.
“They’re beautiful.” Lilac spoke quietly as she moved her chair next to me.
Slowly I traced her vision towards the sky. The clouds had parted during my breakdown. A great gulf had opened in the sky. Tiny, white lights twinkled far away. Distant and cold, beautiful in their frozen blackness. I had to agree with her, they were beautiful. They brought a soft, comforting warmth to my heart. Something distant, faded by time and pain, but not yet lost.
“Thank you.” Lilac was still staring at the sky as she spoke, “For taking care of Requiem. For saving her.”
“Why?” The idea that she cared so much about the filly seemed strange, certainly these were good ponies. But why fixate so much on her?
Lilac sighed quietly, “Before all this began, I used to travel to South-End Junction to buy and sell supplies. Her parents owned the trading post and bar. I remember the first time she spoke to me. The first time I got to hear her play music. She was always so happy then. But... The raiders came. They’d always stayed close to the center of the city. But after the Day of Sunshine and Rainbows, I guess even the wicked ponies found something new to fight for.”
Day of Sunshine and Rainbows? That name sounded familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. But more importantly, Lilac knew Requiem! For a moment I just stared at her in silence as she continued her story.
“We should have been there. We knew the raiders were planning something big. They’d been sending scouts through the ruins. But with everything which had happened in the last month, reconnecting with the rest of the Rangers was deemed a priority.” she lowered her head, a tear slipping from her eye, “We lost our friends, and with them the numbers to risk sending to help protect the town. We couldn’t risk the raiders or enclave attacking the hospital. Stealing what we’d been protecting here. We should have been there, have saved her.”
A long silence, “I should have been there.”
My heart ached. My head filled with a soft throbbing. I wanted to cry for her, “Don’t blame yourself. I should have been faster. Done more. I saw them coming. I...” my voice failed me for the second time today. I could have stopped them. I should have stopped them. “I’ll take care of her. As long as she’ll let me.”
Lilac smiled slightly, staring up at the skies, “Then you’d better get used to having her around. I’ve never seen that filly change her mind once she sets her sights on something. And I don’t think she’s going to give up on you either.”
My mind drifted back to the prison. They had caught her there. But, was it because she wasn’t good enough at hiding? Or had she come looking for me? Afraid that I’d gotten myself into trouble?
Requiem finally finished whatever it was she was practicing and trotted over. Without hesitation she flopped down at my side, digging the gold-bound book from my saddle bag and snuggling in under my wing. What she wanted was obvious enough.
I levitated the book out infront of me and cracked it open. Beginning to read again, a story which seemed to come to me more effortlessly than the words on the page, “Once upon a time, long ago, before the goddesses ruled over Equestria...”
“... And you! That knee joint is out of alignment. Of course you’re having problems with limping.” Arsenal’s voice echoed down the halls as Requiem and I approached the dining room. The smell of freshly heated packaged meals filled the air, “Erg. Don’t any of you muckdwellers know how to maintain a basic suit of power armor!?”
“H-hey! Scribe Waffle Iron was-” The distinctive metallic twang of a pony in Steel Ranger armor echoed down the halls.
“Wasn’t very good.” Arsenal’s reply cut them off, “You can’t just rely on auto-repair spells! This armor is a work of art. A beautiful fusion of form and function. And here you are wearing it into the ground! It’s a crime against arcanotechnology!” she was being her usual huffy self, it seemed.
“What are you... Stay away from me with that! FOG! You’ve gotta get her under control!” the same voice as before. Followed by the squeal of metal against metal. That was a little worrying.
“Hmph. Her ‘friends’ should be down here any minute. She won’t listen to me. I even threatened to shoot her.” Frozen Fog’s response had all the enthusiasm I had come to expect from him.
I rounded the corner into the dining room. Arsenal had cornered one of the Applejack’s Rangers behind a table and appeared to be in the process of disassembling one of their legs. Screwdriver held in her mouth and a wrench between her hooves. Her wings were gloriously chain-free, but I could still see the way her feathers warped where they had been pierced. She might no longer be shackled, but she was certainly not whole.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. Momma’s going to make it all better.” The dark red pegasus spoke with a quiet, soothing voice for once.
“You’re not my mother! And I’m already fine!”
Arsenal simply looked up with an angry glare at the one inside the armor, “Not you, you brute.” before returning to her attentions.
For a moment all I could do was stand in the doorway and stare at this bizarre scene unfolding before my eyes. I knew Arsenal wasn’t a coward, but the pony she was assaulting was carrying missiles! And grenades! And who knows what else! Did she... Did she have a death wish? Maybe, but she certainly didn’t seem to be having difficulty with what she was doing.
Eventually Arsenal relented, carefully replacing the section of armor she had opened. Sliding back across the table, “There. All better. I cannot believe that you would go so long without proper repairs! I suppose I shouldn’t expect much from those down here. But I would have thought that the vaunted Steel Rangers would know at least a little better!”
The Applejack’s Ranger she had been assaulting slowly flexed their leg, “Hey... The tugging and lag is gone!”
Arsenal just rolled her eyes and trotted away, “Ignorant brutes.” looking up to me with a grin as she approached, “My savior has arrived! Now, come along. You deserve a reward for everything you’ve done!”
I opened my mouth to protest, only to have Arsenal grab me by the mane and tug me into the room. I hadn’t come here for breakfast for myself, just for Requiem. Where was Requiem anyway? She’d disappeared shortly after we got to the doorway.
Arsenal dragged me across the room to a table covered in re-heated foodstuffs, “I staked a claim early. You deserve a little something special for helping me. And these savages have plenty to spare.”
“Your friend has such great social skills.” Frozen Fog had finished whatever he was having for breakfast, “I’m so glad we got the chance to meet.”
“Hmph! Some of us understand what it means to have standards! You’d probably be happy living in a box somewhere.” Arsenal turned her nose up at Fog’s remark.
What did I miss? Had these two really been arguing all morning? My mind reeled with questions I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know the answer to.
The soft squeaking of Lilac’s wheelchair was audible during the momentary lull, “Am I interrupting something..? I thought it was time for breakfast. But it seems to be time for arguing instead.” Lilac’s voice was instantly reassuring. Finally, somepony who was sane!
I could feel Requiem return to my side, something carried in her mouth. Settling down under the table at my hooves to eat her own breakfast. The smell of the meal before me was intoxicating. I didn’t feel hungry, but part of me just wanted to eat it all anyway. Carefully I levitated an ancient snack cake from the table and took a bite.
My mouth exploded with sweet, unrestrained joy. My tongue elated in seven new ways. My heart raced and eyes swam. Why didn’t anypony tell me food was this good!? Without thinking I devoured the rest of the snack cake and began to dig into the rest of the meal. Arsenal had set out enough to feed three ponies. But right now I didn’t care about waste. My mouth was alive with joy, and a joy I so desperately wanted more of!
The screech of a chair on hard tile filled the room, “If you’re done insulting those who saved your life, I believe it is time for me to go and disconnect one of the auto-doctors for transport.” Fog stood from the remains of his meal.
Arsenal was across the room and out of my sight almost instantly, “Oh no! You are not going to hack one of those miracles apart! You brutes would just break it!”
“Hmph. And I suppose you can do better?”
“Of course I can! Do I look like an ignorant muckdweller to you?”
“I don’t know about dwelling. But you certainly have the muck.”
“Rrrrgh! Why you! Come along. I’ll show you how easy it is. Then maybe you will be able to follow along on your own.” Arsenal raised her nose as she trotted out of the room in irritation.
“Hmhm. If she’s half as good as she thinks she is, maybe she will be useful after all.” Fog followed her out.
The squeak of Lilac’s wheelchair grew louder, digging its way through my food-induced euphoria. Her own voice was quiet and delicate by comparison to those two, “I’m sorry about last night.”
Pausing in my meal I just looked up at her a moment, “Sorry? Sorry for what?” She hadn’t done anything wrong, had she? Well, I was pretty sure she hadn’t.
Lilac looked down briefly, slowly moving a bowl of grey ooze which was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike oatmeal onto the table, “I shouldn’t have forced my problems on you like that. You care about Requiem. That’s all that should really matter. You don’t deserve to feel bad about my failures.” Her failures? Something about that prospect seemed wrong. But I was too infatuated with my food to linger upon it.
Downing the contents of a Sparkle~Cola bottle in one motion, I let the warm flat taste of carrots sweep over my mouth. It wasn’t hard to see why Scraps was so infatuated with these things. Somepony, somewhere, had been a genius for inventing a drink like that! The last of my meal had been cleared away. A warm, comfortable weight in my stomach. I hadn’t been hungry before, but somehow this felt better than just ‘not hungry’.
Silence filled the room as Lilac stared at her meal. For a moment she struggled to lean forwards, to get close enough to the bowl to be able to eat her own breakfast. It was obvious she wasn’t used to this, as she suddenly tumbled forwards, burying her muzzle into the warm goo. Part of me wanted to laugh, but I did my best to shut that part out, “Would you like some help..?”
Struggling to get her leg under her and lift herself from the bowl, Lilac shook her head, just staring at the meal a moment. She glared at the brown ooze, stoic and silent for a long moment. Gradually moving to bring her head back up, “No. I’ll be f-” she choked a moment, “Fine.” swallowing slowly. She stared at me a long, long moment with tightly closed lips. Briefly I considered leaving.
Her gaze turned from anger slowly towards sorrow as she bit down on her lips. Tears beginning to struggle out of her one remaining eye. Her leg trembled upon the table, before finally giving way again. A soft wet ‘splat’ accompanied her chin hitting the hard wood, followed by a snorting gasp, “I... I... I can’t... I can’t do it like this. I have t-to. C-can’t let someone else d-do things for me.” choking on her tears as she clenched her eye closed tightly.
She bawled, openly and without restraint, “I just... S-since then. I c-can’t do anything. Not... Not alone. I can’t.... I can’t be this! They deserve better!” another choked snort, her ears folded low against her head, “I don’t.. I won’t be their weak link. If... If I am. It’s better they leave me behind. I h-have to be st-strong enough. To be with them.” she cried quietly a long time. Struggling to regain her balance even as she fought back tears. Three more times she fell before making it upright again. Looking downward at her hooves and the oatmeal-covered table with quiet shame.
I winced at that. I really did just want to help. The way she must feel about this didn’t even occur to me. “I’m sorry. I... If there’s anything I can do for you, ever. Just... Just let me know.” A weak smile to a new friend. Or at least what I hoped might become one.
Her voice was low, almost hoarse, from the crying. It cracked and groaned, “Do you know where we could go? We can’t stay here. But we have no where left to retreat to. Manehattan is much too far away. Fillydelphia is still filled with fighting. We’re at the end of our rope now.” The way she said it, I was sure she wouldn’t have even asked if I weren’t here. That she didn’t like asking me for anything. Especially not now.
Somewhere to go? That was what I was looking for, too. A place to go. I’d run out of leads. Out of ideas. Nowhere left to go. No leads remained. But, I did know somewhere else. “I... I think I might know a place. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.”
Slowly Lilac raised her gaze again, the faintest beginnings of a smile on tear and oatmeal stained lips, “If you know anywhere, even if it’s only a chance, it’s better than nothing.”
The thump of a massive metal tube into the carriage I was connected to sent a shock through my barding. The last of the three autodocs was loaded onto our caravan. Two teams of two earth ponies in Steel Ranger armor, and me drawing the third. A Scribe to ride along with each. Requiem, Arsenal and Lilac would be riding in the back of mine as well. It wasn’t much of a caravan, but it was all we had.
“And you didn’t think I could do it.” Arsenal had been insufferably proud of herself all morning.
“I guess there are some things featherbrains can do right.” Fog needled in return.
The pair had been going back and forth for hours. Neither one willing to accept the other was actually worthwhile. Silently I hoped that the two of them would react to Scraps slightly better. She at least didn’t seem so self-absorbed with her own greatness.
“That’s the last of it.” Lilac’s voice cut through my thoughts, “It’s time for us to leave.” she had a small detonator in her lap, wired to a dozen explosives in the hospital. The two of us had spent hours setting the charges together.
The wheels of the wagon behind me squeaked as I began walking. Heading away from an old home and towards a new one. The Applejack’s Rangers at my side, my friends behind me. Somehow it felt... Right. Like things were about to become better. Somewhere the spark of hope had returned. A brighter tomorrow.
Far above us the cloud cover had split open. The gaps through which I had watched the stars the night before had spread. The light of the morning sun cascaded through them, creating long lines against the horizon. Beams of golden light, filled with peace and joy. The sensation of the light against my coat a warm, comforting feeling. Like a road in the heavens pointing our way towards home.
Aurora Borealis (Level Up! - Level 6)
New Perk: Cast ‘n Dash - You are adept at casting on the go. Halves the penalty to accuracy with spells due to moving while casting! Never worry about chasing down your opponents again.
Silent Requiem (Level Up! - Level 5)
Arsenal (Level Up! - Level 5)